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Humanitas Digitalis

Digital HumanitiesIf you read the times–any times that is, from the 12th to the 21st centuries–literate humanity, and its grab bag of self-conscious preoccupations (i.e. the humanities) is ever unravelling. Some learned pundit–like Harold Bloom, Clive James, Matthew Arnold, Giambattista Vico, Francis Bacon, et al–is either prophesying its doom or writing the story of its rebirth. Fortunately, the pundits always have a key role to play: proudly pontificating at the end of a long dying noble lineage, or reluctantly starring in progression’s glorious rebirth. We’re always being told that we need something to find our way–a return to the classics, or the light of a new science–and we’re thrilled to take up our liberal arts to champion the past or rouse the future, because it’s dark and scary out there, surrounded by all that oblivion and grandeur. No matter how you slice it though, it’s really exhausting being this important.

I’m no different, of course. I’m always convinced of whatever new insight I’ve stumbled upon. I was a Gramscian marxist in my early twenties, a Spenglarian romantic in my late twenties, and now a postmodern pastiche of fungible sensibilities: a liberal humanist in the voting booth, a dedicated capitalist for Apple, a revolutionary over beers, a conservative parent, a self-conscious white male who could be convincingly recreated with New Yorker ads, privileged economics and a Moleskine journal. (If you’re currently rubbing your index finger and your thumb together playing history’s saddest song on the world’s smallest violin, don’t stop on my account, this screed could use a tune.)

And now, apparently, if the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and cutting edge scholars like Matthew Kirschenbaum and William Panapacker are to be believed, I should be a Digital Humanist too. For those of you who aren’t academics or don’t care about academic things, Digitial Humanities (DH) is–scare quotes and all–“the next big thing” in the humanistic sciences. Basically, that means there’s a whole encyclopedia¹ of academics who are interested in talking about how information technology affects the humanities (i.e. literature, history, philosophy, etc), and how the humanities affects information technology. Now, if my tone betrays a tincture of cynicism it’s not because I believe digital tools aren’t useful, or that digital questions aren’t interesting. They are useful, and they are certainly interesting (just ask J.M. Coetzee, who used computer stylistic analysis to examine the works of Samuel Beckett for his dissertation). I guess I’m just a bit suspicious, as always, of the import.

There’s the good ol’ fashioned economic and social import, of course; if this is the language of the people who are passing out paychecks, it’s probably worth learning the vocabulary. Plus, who wants to be the guy–or girl–at the party who doesn’t know the coolest kid? Not me. “Nice to meet you Professor Pannapacker.” “Yes, I know there aren’t any academic jobs, but have you seen my Face-tweet-blog of the Cassandra meme?” “No? Well, you can find it here at #wheniwasakidpeoplehadmanners.”

What I’m getting at is that regardless of the delivery method, no matter how many terabytes of scripts you can filter or treatises you can relationally database, humanitas is intractably the same, impending doom and all. How should we care for each other? How do we deal with loss? If beauty is the transmutation of pain, is love death’s fermentation? Is the only way to suss a metaphor with a truss? The humanities needs a pulse, otherwise it’s just a corpse. It doesn’t matter much how you take the pulse, as long as you remember the pulse is the point, not the units of measure.


1. The official term for a group of academics, often preferred to the more obscure, “pen of scholars.”

4 Responses to Humanitas Digitalis

  1. Alexj says:

    Just cuz you use a computer doesn’t erase your pulse. The point for died-in-the-wool DHers is that there is something new under this sun: the tools allow for new kinds of practices, engagements, methods, and theories, even if one is asking the same human questions. Techno-determinism? Perhaps. I’m also not convinced. Yet this practice (here: blogging and commenting) does produce a nuance within out relationship, a new field for your voice, and other possibilities or gradations of old humanities work, and the question is might that be made even more complex?

    • C. Travis Webb says:

      Pulses certainly persist, but I think we’re often distracted by the lights, the beeps and blips of their measurement. We’re supremely talented at symbolizing our biological–and, perhaps, spiritual–drives, and I’m unconvinced, though still intrigued, that digital interactions engender humanistic complexities. I’m not being rhetorical when I ask whether a digital interaction is not actually a simplification of a human interaction? A bit rate sampling of an analog possibility? What can’t I toss into this conversation without real effort that I could toss into a face-to-face interaction somewhat easily? Perhaps nothing. I’m open to the idea. I don’t think, however, at least not today, that a digital interaction is necessarily more mediated than any of the other types of mediated human interaction. One thinks of political affiliations, disciplinary loyalties, etc. I certainly don’t mean to inveigh against the digital humanities–or other forms of mediation, either. Mediation is fantastic. It produces all sorts of distinctly human possibilities: manners for example, complex economic organizations that suppress sexual acquisitiveness. I’m all for mediation. I’m just not convinced that mediation produces anything other than mediation–in that Nietzschean, “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense” kind of way. There’s no teleology, no arrow. I think mediations are most useful which don’t forget what they are. Powerful simplifications of a vast but fragile complexity which far exceeds us. Now, perhaps, the digital humanities allows that: a gesture beyond itself. Like I said, I’m open to it.

  2. Jung-Hsien says:

    I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on why “English” is slightly different (if it is, as the title of the essay suggests) from other disciplines in the humanities? Do you think there are certain fields in the traditional humanities more suitable for DH and some are not?

    • C. Travis Webb says:

      Hmm, a good question, I think. I’m probably the wrong person to answer it, though, since I’m not sure what DH contributes to humanistic inquiry, other than the necessary innovation to keep a new generation chasing the same old questions. Like I said to Prof. Juhasz, I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong–since it happens so often–but, I think, the humanities, in general, benefits from whatever keeps people asking humanistic questions, regardless of which arm is asking them: English, History, Philosophy, etc. What do you think?

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